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Thursday, May 2, 2019
welch in front of japanese art

Art history elective changes career trajectory of museum curator alumnus

Matthew Welch '80, B.A. Art History

by Mary Denny

Matthew Welch’s introduction to art began at an early age. Having a dad in the U.S. Air Force led to lengthy postings in Tachikawa, Japan, and Stuttgart, Germany, and instilled a nascent passion for travel, art museums, and historic sites. As Matthew approached his senior year of high school, his family’s final posting to Randolph Air Force Base brought him to San Antonio and an English teacher who strongly recommended he apply to Trinity University. Looking back he recalls, “The school’s reputation for strong academics and the beautiful campus made it an easy choice.”

headshot of welchDespite his early passions, Matthew matriculated into Trinity planning to major in biology or chemistry with the thought of entering medical school. Until, that is, he says an elective class “changed my world.” Taught by professor Glenn Patton, that art history class covered ancient to Renaissance art. To Matthew, he says, “it brought order and methodology to things I had seen as a youngster in Europe. Until that time I had no idea that art history and visual cultural could constitute an academic discipline.” The following semester he enrolled in a class on Japanese art with professor Carla Zaine. “After the overt and pervasive religiosity of European art, Japanese art seemed so fresh and contemporary. I was smitten. By the end of the semester there was no turning back. I declared myself an art history major.”

There was just one problem. At the time, Trinity offered a studio program, but not an art history major. Undaunted, Matthew stayed the course, becoming one of the first students to concentrate on art history and taking, he says, “just a smattering of studio coursework.” Zaine advised him that a career in this discipline required a Ph.D. “Universities and art museums,” she said, “demand advanced degrees as an entrepôt for aspiring professors and curators.”
“It was a huge commitment for an undergraduate to think about,” says Matthew, “but after a few more semesters with additional art history courses under my belt, I was certain this was my path.”  

Shortly after graduating in 1980, Matthew headed to the University of Kansas, which his adviser, professor and Chinese painting specialist Leitha McIntire, suggested as a good place to continue his studies. He earned his master’s degree in 1982, but prior to beginning his Ph.D. spent spent a year in Japan teaching English, honing his Japanese language skills, and making important contacts among Japanese art historians.

Returning to Kansas, he completed his Ph.D. coursework in 1986. A Fulbright Scholarship to the Department of Arts and Letters at Kyoto University for doctorate research brought him back to Japan. What was to be a yearlong process stretched to four as Matthew wholeheartedly embraced Japanese society, and his cultural immersion included practicing Zen meditation at Tofuku-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. His research delved deeply into a Japanese Zen priest who had lived through the country’s modernization era and left behind a copious amount of paintings and calligraphies.

Now holding impressive academic credentials backed by in-depth experience, Matthew embarked on his chosen career path. He joined the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) in 1990 as assistant curator of Asian art. A series of successful publications and exhibitions propelled him through the ranks to associate and full curator. For several years he was also an adjunct professor at Thomas University in St. Paul, teaching courses in Asian art history. He assumed his present positions, chief curator and deputy director, in 2008. Although now primarily involved in shaping the overall strategic direction of the museum, its exhibitions, and its programs, he retains his passion and curiosity about Japanese art and remains engaged in that aspect of his training. Over the course of his nearly 30-year career at MIA, Matthew can recount numerous wonderful moments, but he singles out one of his major highlights. In 2012 Mary Griggs Burke, a noted New York collector of Japanese and Korean art, bequeathed a substantial portion of her renowned collection of Japanese and Korean art—some 670 works—to the museum.

Matthew married his high school sweetheart, Michelle Freisenhahn ’80, shortly after their Trinity graduation. “We’ve been together ever since,” he recounts happily. As he moved through the ranks at MIA, she had a successful career in consumer research, and they are the parents of two adult children. When he’s not at the museum, he can be found serving on the Upper Midwest Art Conservation Center board, hitting the gym daily—“which means I exist in a perpetual state of soreness”—or visiting museums around the world, a fortunate aspect of his work that satisfies his passions for travel and art, about which he remains irrepressibly ebullient. Concludes Matthew, “I’m constantly amazed at humankind’s capacity for innovation and creativity.”

You can contact Matthew at mwelch [at] artsmia.org.